San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is Nicaragua’s isolation a self-fulfilling prophecy?

MANAGUA – Is President Daniel Ortega paranoid? Or are the neighbors really conspiring against him?

In recent weeks, it would appear that the latter is true.

Since the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border squabble flared up in late October, most of Central America and Colombia have sided with Costa Rica and denounced Nicaragua’s military “invasion” of Tico territory. And with the exception of Venezuela, which gave Nicaragua its full ideological solidarity at last month’s Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS), even Ortega’s closest political allies in the hemisphere – Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador – haven’t gone to bat for his government.

Nicaragua insists its river-dredging operation is totally legal and has not crossed the fence into the neighbor’s yard. But so far Costa Rica is winning the international battle for public opinion, while Nicaragua is looking more isolated than ever.


Looking Over His Shoulder: Army Gen. Julio César Aviles thinks Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras are conspiring against Nicaragua.

“I think Ortega has no friends left in Latin America, outside Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and possibly Bolivia’s Evo Morales,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a Latin America analyst at the Brookings Institution and a former vice president of Costa Rica. “The time-honed image of Costa Rica as a democratic country and as a reasonable international actor is helping the country mightily in this situation. If a Martian landed tomorrow and was introduced to Laura Chinchilla and Daniel Ortega, my guess is that he’d find out rather quickly who the thug is and who’s the responsible leader.”

Earthling leaders seem to be drawing a similar conclusion.

Both the center-left president of El Salvador and the right-wing president of Panama have called on Nicaragua to “withdraw its troops from Costa Rica.” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli went a step further last week, pledging his government’s “total support” for Costa Rica.

Ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has accused Nicaragua of “aggression” against Costa Rica.

And in Honduras, Security Ministry Oscar Alvarez announced that police are investigating separate “intelligence reports” suggesting that the Nicaraguan military is involved in training and arming Honduran rebels – an accusation the Nicaragua categorically denies (TT, Nov. 26).

Meanwhile, the governments of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama have all sent protest letters to Managua over the past weeks in response to Ortega’s recent rant accusing those countries of representing the interest of drug-traffickers (NT, Nov. 19).

Nicaragua, it appears, won’t be getting invited to many neighborhood Christmas parties this holiday season.

The question, however, is whether there is an organized “dirty campaign” against the Sandinista government for geopolitical and ideological reasons, or if Nicaragua’s uncomfortable diplomatic standing in Latin America is a product of Ortega’s self-fulfilling prophecy about conspirators?

Foreign Land Grab?

Sandinista government and military officials seem to think there’s a strategic and long-standing conspiracy among the neighbors to steal Nicaragua’s land.

The Nicaraguan government this week issued a white paper report accusing Costa Rica of dusting off old expansionist plans to steal Nicaragua’s territory and natural resources. “Costa Rica’s true strategic goal is to have direct access to the Lake of Nicaragua and San Juan River,” the white paper asserts (see separate story).

Nicaraguan military chief Gen. Julio César Aviles, meanwhile, warned this week that Honduras and Costa Rica are acting in cahoots with Colombia to attack and discredit the Sandinista government from all directions in a plot to usurp Nicaraguan land and maritime territory.  

Nicaragua is currently in the midst of a lengthy international litigation process against Colombia in the International Court of Justice over disputed maritime territory. Recently, Costa Rica and Honduras have both expressed interest in becoming a party to world court proceedings, arguing that their strategic national interests could be affected by the outcome of the litigation. But Nicaragua smells a conspiracy.

“We have to be clear that Nicaragua has lost territory to the North and to the South and it’s not a coincidence that while Nicaragua is in litigation with Colombia before the court, these other two countries to the north and south, in this case Honduras and Costa Rica, are getting involved and trying to make Nicaragua’s position more difficult,” Aviles said, according to the daily El Nuevo Diario.

But one of Nicaragua’s leading security and defense experts claims Ortega has brought the situation upon himself.

Civilian defense expert Roberto Cajina, a board member of the Latin American Network on Security and Defense and a former military advisor to retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, said Nicaragua’s border disputes with Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia are nothing new. They tend to flare when the internal situation in Nicaragua is perceived as unstable, he said.

Cajina says Ortega has prepared an “explosive cocktail” of “ungovernability, institutional fracture, a rupture of constitutional order, a collapse of rule of law and violations of human rights.”

“I don’t think this is about a conspiracy or a dirty campaign (against Nicaragua), rather a combination of factors that are favorable to Ortega’s adversaries,” Cajina told The Nica Times this week.

The security expert said the Sandinista government’s “erratic and improvised” foreign policy has put Ortega in a “dangerous situation of international isolation” because he’s viewed as “the bad boy of the neighborhood.”

Cajina said Nicaragua’s national security is not in danger “in the classic sense,” but Ortega is putting the economy and investment climate at risk, which jeopardizes the wellbeing of the entire society.

What, Me Worry?

Since returning to office in 2007, Ortega’s conspiracy theories about enemy plots have become increasingly complex and consuming. Ortega’s constant worry about domestic and foreign plotters has reflected in his increasingly reclusive and guarded behavior.

The president, who used to crave the spotlight of the international stage, seldom travels abroad anymore. He’s redoubled his security measures at home, converting his Managua compound into a virtual bunker that is isolated from the rest of the city behind reinforced concrete walls, watchtowers and perimeter barricades.

In speeches, Ortega frets frequently about conspiracies by the Catholic Church, opposition politicians, non-governmental groups, media outlets and foreign interests – all of whom he’s accused of plotting to destabilize his government (NT, Oct. 7).

And following last month’s 22-to-2 vote in the OAS calling for the withdrawal of troops from the disputed border region between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Ortega accused all the participating members of the hemisphere of “conspiring” against him.

The recent diplomatic turn of events has some analysts wondering if Ortega has finally achieved the conspiracy against his government that he’s always talked about.

“As a Nicaraguan and as a student of the history of my country, I cannot rule out that what is happening right now is not a coincidence,” said Andrés Pérez, professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada. “In other words, in my analysis I have to consider the possibility that there is a plan to destabilize Ortega’s government.”

Though Pérez claims “lots of people in Nicaragua would be happy” if there truly were an international conspiracy against Ortega, he said such a plot would only end up strengthening the president’s position heading into next year’s elections.

“If Ortega is able to convince Nicaragua that there is a conspiracy against him, it would muster the support of a great part of the population,” Pérez said. “A conspiracy, therefore, would be the greatest gift Ortega could get for 2011.”

 Others, however, are not convinced that there’s any conspiracy against Ortega.

“I don’t think there is a dirty campaign against Ortega; I think the principal problem is that after Ortega’s strong comments about narco-trafficking and the complacency of Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica, the presidents of Latin America are changing their position in relation to Nicaragua,” said Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Until recently, Orozco said, other countries in the region considered Nicaragua to be a “country of little incidence, whose president is tolerable because he’s a low-intensity dictator.”

However, the analyst said, as Ortega expands his habit of attacking the U.S. government to a broader practice of lashing out against other Latin American countries, he’s starting to experience some “reciprocal” push back.

“It’s one thing to attack the United States (verbally), but it’s another thing to attack other Latin American countries,” Orozco told The Nica Times in an email.

“If Ortega’s criticism against other Latin American countries is unfounded and with bad intentions, the presidents of Latin America will respond firmly,” he added, “And in the long run, that will only hurt Nicaragua.”

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